Sunday, March 1, 2009

A hands-on review of the new DPA 4099 Clip Guitar miniature microphone

Danish Pro Audio has released a new line of miniature performance microphones. DPA is a long established, well known company that makes some of the finest studio mics in the world. So when I read about the DPA 4099 Guitar Clip Microphone, I called them to request a review sample. After a short wait, it has arrived. I won't keep you in suspense. It's wonderful! So if you're wondering whether it lives up the the advertising, the answer is "YES!" If you buy it you won't be disappointed. If you'd like to learn more about this marvelous minaiture microphone... read on.

My name is Alan Acuff and I'm  a singer/songwriter living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I started blogging after my friends David GrayIra Ingber, and Ray Doyle persuaded me to take my first steps into the world of digital audio recording. In the past I have worked as a guitar tech, folksinger, and broadcast music producer. Now, after running a small photography business for the last ten years, I find myself getting back into music in a serious way. Sometimes absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Music is a craft and like any craftsman I've been stocking my tool chest with the best tools I can get my hands on. The DPA 4099 Clip Guitar Microphone is the most recent addition. My buddy Utah Phillips taught me that folksingers travel light. So I'm extremely selective about the tools I carry with me.  

About twenty-five years ago I worked for a while as an assistant to a guitar tech in Venice, California. At the time my boss was experimenting with various approaches to amplifying acoustic guitars. That's where my education about acoustic guitar amplification began. After trying some of his best in-guitar microphone set-ups, I concluded that the on-board guitar mics that were available at that time didn't sound very good and weren't practical. They were overly bright and they were prone to feedback at low volumes. So for my own gigs I chose a Sunrise Pickup in combination with a Demeter Tube Direct preamp.

For about 20 years I made a meager living performing as a folksinger in the southwest and California, and my Sunrise/Demeter system proved itself to be reliable and the sound quality was also pretty good. It sounded more than a little like an acoustic guitar and that seemed to be the best you could expect from an acoustic guitar pickup. 

At various times I tried out newer systems. Some of them, like the Fishman pickups, were also good but none of these pickups really reproduced the entire rich and complex sound of high quality acoustic guitars. Don't get me wrong... they were darn good, but they all fell short if you compared them to a good microphone. The best way to record or amplify an acoustic guitar is with a microphone in front of the guitar. Unfortunately high quality studio mics just aren't practical on stage. They are delicate, highly susceptible to feedback and if you don't sit perfectly still the sound will be inconsistent. 

Let's digress briefly and examine the problem of acoustic guitar amplification from a mechanical viewpoint. What we think of as the sound of an acoustic guitar is actually a combination of sounds that come from several places on the guitar. The main part of the sound radiates from the top of the guitar. The air inside the body of the guitar adds bottom which emanates from the sound hole. The strings themselves provide fundamental tones and harmonic overtones that make the sound shimmer and sparkle. You can compare a guitar to a 3-way speaker–the sound hole is like a woofer, the top of the guitar is like a midrange driver, and the strings are like a tweeter.

On-board acoustic guitar pickups, also called transducers, used by professional musicians fall into three basic categories:

1.Soundhole pickups sense the string vibrations magnetically. They sound similar to the pickups on a good archtop jazz guitar and are very resistant to feedback. 

2. Piezoelectric pickups, which include the popular under-saddle pickups, sense the physical vibration of the strings through the saddle, bridge, or top of your guitar. They sound bright and have a bit of sparkle. These are the most popular acoustic guitar pickups because they are invisible and don't block the soundhole. They are less resistant to feedback than the soundhole pickups but they still provide good volume before feedback.

3. Miniature microphones inside the guitar reproduce the sound of the strings and top as they sound listening from inside the guitar. The dominant sound is that of the air mass. It's a bassy sound and these mics feedback at relatively low volumes. They are usually used blended with one of the first two types of pickup. This reduces feedback and inproves the sound of the pickup by blending in some of the acoustic sound of the guitar.

As you can see, the only pickup that senses the strings, the top of the guitar, and the air mass inside the guitar is a good microphone aimed at the guitar. The DPA 4099 is just such a microphone. For a high quality microphone it is surprisingly resistant to feedback. What makes it practical is this feedback resistance combined with the clever mounting system that allows you to position the mike in your guitar's sweet spot.

A couple of years ago I found the guitar of my dreams at Martin guitar expert Fred Walecki's legendary Westwood Music in Los Angeles. It's a Martin OOO-18 that is the biggest sounding concert-size guitar I've ever heard. It's a fingerpicker's dream come true. For the past year I've been recording it with various microphones in my home studio. This has been quite a challenge because after decades of performing live I find it awkward to track my guitar and vocals separately. It doesn't feel natural to me because I balance the sounds while I play and sing. It's difficult to find a sensitive instrument mic that provides good isolation and still gives you good sound. Some rather expensive, high quality studio microphones have proved impractical for me simply because they pick up too much of my vocals. So when I read about the new DPA acoustic guitar mic, I jumped at the chance to try one out. 

When I began performing in clubs in Austin, Texas I used to bill myself as "the world's least known folksinger" So when I called DPA it was no shock that they didn't know of me. Nonetheless, the DPA folks were quite gracious. After we talked it over they kindly agreed to provide a sample microphone for review. 

When the mic arrived I was immediately impressed with the elegant and functional hard shell carrying case that contains the microphone, cable, XLR adapter, and mounting hardware. Also included is a soft padded gig bag that will fit nicely in your guitar case. Overall, the packaging is well conceived. It's both elegant and sturdy.

So what's the big deal about this new miniature guitar microphone? Haven't other companies made clip-on guitar mics? Well... yes and no... This microphone is truly something new. As far as I know, the DPA 4099 is unique among miniature instrument mics because it is actually a miniature shotgun mic. As far as I know, no other miniature intrument mic is based on shotgun microphone technology. Kudos to the engineering and design folks who conceived and developed this novel microphone. It does the job!

If you've ever seen a movie crew at work, you've probably seen them using shotgun microphones to record the dialogue. A shotgun mic is extremely directional. The new DPA mic is a very very small shotgun mic. It comes attached to a flexible lightweight boom arm which attaches to a light, stable mounting bracket the gently holds it in place on your acoustic guitar. The slender microphone cable terminates in a belt clip which includes a high pass filter and XLR cable adapter. The microphone come with an adapter ring that replaces the belt clip on the adapter so that you can plug it directly into the XLR input on a preamp or mixer. 

Various other adapters are also available. The 4099 Clip Guitar microphone is compatible with any type of audio connection you can think of. It should also be noted that with the different clips and mounting brackets available the 4099 can be mounted on trumpet, saxophone, violin, mandolin, dobro, banjo, etc. The DPA 4099 mics sold for use with trumpet and saxophone are modified to be a bit less sensitive than the guitar and violin mics so that they can handle the high sound pressure levels of brass instruments.

No doubt you're thinking, "Enough already... what does the mic sound like?" Well, what does your guitar sound like? That's what the microphone sounds like. It's that accurate. No joke! It really is!

I first tried the mic at home in my studio with my Martin OOO-18 and Fishman SoloAmp. It sounded awesome! I was able to play at club and coffee house volumes with the Soloamp at behind me, and to the left just an arm's length away. Incredible but true! The sound was without a doubt the best acoustic guitar sound I've ever obtained from a club-sized sound system. You could easily play a room of 150-200 people with this set-up.

While a mic selling at a street price of about $600 is priced within reach of musicians working small venues it's clearly designed to meet the needs of professional musicians who play on larger stages. So I called a friend of mine who runs a concert venue here in Santa Fe. He's a bit shy of personal publicity so I agreed not to mention his name... I'll call him Bob. I asked Bob if he would be interested in trying out the mic on stage at his club. By the way, Bob is also a world class acoustic jazz guitarist. How could he resist?

Bob, like me, was at first skeptical as to whether the DPA mic would be able to provide sufficient volume before feedback. On his stage with the mains and monitors playing at concert volume it was no problem getting a loud and clear guitar sound. It sounded like an accurate, natural reproduction of Bob's little Yamaha classical guitar. 

Next, we compared the DPA mic with the onboard pickup system in Bob's guitar. Bob likes the Yamaha pickup system because he can make his guitar sound bigger and fuller than it sounds unamplified.  He preferred his built-in pickup in some respects. On the other hand, I felt that the DPA mic gave us a more accurate and natural sound. We both thought the DPA mic sounded darn good.

This experiment showed me that the DPA mic is not going to sound fabulous unless you use it with a fabulous guitar. If you use it with a lesser guitar... one that say... sounds thin and bright, then that is what you're going to hear through your speakers. If you have a weak sounding guitar that plays well and you want to make it sound big and lush, you'll have to look elsewhere. If you have a great sounding guitar and you want to amplify it just the way it sounds, this is the best solution I've found. The sound is natural and big at the same time.

Next, Bob pulled out a couple of very expensive Neumann studio microphones for comparison. We went back and forth between the three mics while listening and comparing. The Neumann mics sounded good but they are large, heavy mics and you can't clip mount them on your guitar. In my opinion, the DPA 4099 was the most natural and uncolored sounding mic of the three mics. I preferred it's pristine sound to the more colored sound of the Neumanns.  

If you're a singer/songwriter interested in making guitar based recordings, there's a bonus for you if you buy this mic. Not only can you gig with it, but you can also record with it. I tried using the DPA 4099 mic with my Demeter tube microphone preamp and Apple's Logic Studio audio production software. Oh my God! Without any EQ at all I got a full, rich guitar sound. 

For the first time, I had a mic which allowed me to sing and play while recording a guitar track with almost no vocal bleeding into it. No other mic that I've tried recording with has provided such natural sound combined with such excellent off-axis noise rejection. If you play guitar and have a home studio this mic is a no-brainer. Just buy it!  When you consider that you are getting a great acoustic instrument mic for your studio plus a pickup that you can use in most live venues, it's a great value for the money. Here's a test recording I made with the DPA mic on the acoustic guitar. It's an old-time cowboy song called Diamond Joe.

(If this player doesn't work in your browser then you can right-click on Diamond Joe, download the mp3 file, and play it in iTunes or another mp3 player.)

For what it's worth, I like to mount the mic on the upper front bout so that it points at the strings at the end of the fingerboard. I angle it so that it picks up some of the sound from the sound hole and from the top of the instrument. This way you get the complete acoustic guitar sound. No pickup I've used does this as well.

I do have a suggestion for the folks at DPA. Both Bob and I found that with our concert sized guitars the mounting bracket extends a bit far behind the guitar. If you're not careful you can poke yourself in the chest with it. You're not going to hurt yourself but you do run the risk of dislodging the microphone. You could cut off the extra length but then you may want to use your mic someday on a larger dreadnought or jumbo size guitar. In that case you would need the extra length. The ideal solution would be for DPA to provide an additional shorter extension wand for the clamping mechanism for use with small bodied instruments.

On the plus side, DPA has devised a lightweight and sturdy mounting system. You don't have to modify your guitar in anyway and using it doesn't alter the sound of your instrument. The mounting clamp can be set to apply just the necessary amount of pressure to hold the mic steady. You run no risk of damaging the finish on your fine guitar. If you have more than one guitar, you can easily use the same mic for all of them. Compared with installing a pickup in each guitar it's a practical solution to amplifying several acoustic guitars.

For those of you who need to play at football stadium volume (my words), DPA recommends using their microphone along with your on-board guitar pickup. This way you can blend the mic with your pickup to get higher volume while still getting a goodly amount of the natural acoustic sound of your guitar. For this purpose DPA offers an optional 2-in-1 guitar cable that will carry your mic signal and your pickup signal so that you don't have to run multiple chords.  

Also worthy of mention is the mysterious white rubber disc that comes in the case along with your 4099 microphone. To find it's intended use I had to read the manual where I discovered that it's a tiny wrench used for tightening the connection between the microphone cable and the XLR adapter (or the modular adapter of your choice). Although you can finger-tighten the connector this shows you the kind of people that you're dealing with–the thoughtful folks at DPA in Denmark have gone out of their way to include this elegant, functional tool for your convenience.

For more information you can visit the DPA website at Their 4099 Clip Guitar microphone is available from several reputable internet audio dealers and it is also available directly from DPA here in the U.S.